Federal child nutrition programs help millions of children access healthy food every day. The National School Lunch and Breakfast Programs provide a free or subsidized healthy meal in school for 30 million children, and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides targeted food assistance for more than 6 million moms, babies and young children. Healthy school meals are associated with a reduced risk of food insufficiency, better attendance rates, better test scores, and fewer missed school days. WIC results in improved birth outcomes, diet, infant feeding practices, cognitive development, savings in health care costs, and more. The nutritional quality and foods provided by these programs are informed by the latest nutrition science, like the federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). These evidence-based updates are critical since children of all ages consume excessive amounts of sodium (linked to high blood pressure) and added sugars (linked to metabolic diseases including type 2 diabetes and fatty liver disease, cardiovascular disease, and dental decay). Adults and children of all ages under-consume fruits and vegetables, and key nutrients needed for health.
Unfortunately, every time there are changes sought to improve these programs, special interests (i.e., the food industry) lobby Congress to put corporate profits over children’s health.
Take for instance, the recently proposed revisions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to strengthen the school nutrition standards which would reign in all-too-sugary school breakfast, and continue progress on reducing excessive amounts of salt while maintaining modest amounts of whole grains in school meals. The proposed updates to the WIC food package would boost access to fruits, vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods.
Who is complaining about that? The food industry.
Last month, the House passed its Fiscal Year 2024 agriculture spending bill out of committee that is ridden with special interests, mostly from the dairy industry: halts sodium reduction in school meals (to protect cheese) and makes sure kids continue to be served chocolate low-fat milk (which they already are); continues to allow hashbrowns to be served daily in school breakfast; and keeps an overabundance of dairy in the WIC food package at the expense of cutting fruits and vegetables. This year is nothing new, in years prior, various food interests have gone to Congress to advocate for no limits on French fries to counting pizza as a vegetable.
Dairy continues to be one of the loudest industry voices. Distressed by a decline in fluid milk consumption, the dairy industry is pushing to bring whole milk back to schools. Despite the DGA’s clear recommendation that low- and non-fat milk are the healthiest choice, Big Dairy has amassed bipartisan support for both federal and state legislation in Pennsylvania and New York (the latter failed to advance) while running elaborate PR campaigns seeking to cast doubt on the science. The House Education & Workforce committee advanced a federal bill on this yesterday. For years, the dairy industry was also behind ensuring that low-fat varieties of chocolate, vanilla, and other flavored milks were still allowed to be sold in schools. It is encouraging to see following the USDA’s proposal to require flavored school milk contain no more than 10 grams of added sugars per 8 oz. carton, the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA) announced that milk processors will voluntarily provide options that meet that limit by the 2025-2026 school year.
The dairy industry is also fighting proposed milk reductions in the WIC food package, which is currently too high (the package allows for WIC to provide 85-128 percent of the amount of dairy recommended in the DGA and would bring the allotment down to 71-96 percent) in an effort to allow for inclusion of more fruits, vegetables, and other nutritious foods.
Before the full proposal to update the school nutrition standards was even released in March, the School Nutrition Association, a prominent trade group that represents school nutrition providers with close ties to the food industry, urged the USDA not to implement “unachievable rules.” Important to note: an analysis funded by the Center for Science in the Public Interest and published in the journal Nutrients shows that many posted school menus already meet the proposed stronger standards. This trade group has a long history of siding with industry and claims that the healthier school fare is unavailable or too challenging to provide - a stance that prioritizes industry over benefits to kids. Food companies bristle at regulations that could require costly reformulations of their K-12 products, despite a 2021 report showing that many current offerings could fit within science-based standards even stronger than what the USDA has proposed.
Revisions to child nutrition programs can have a big impact on the health of our children. Following passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 and subsequent updates to school nutrition standards, the nutritional quality of school foods improved significantly, and researchers concluded that by 2017-2018, foods consumed in school were higher in nutritional quality than foods from grocery stores, worksites, and restaurants. Following the 2009 updates to the WIC food package, the last time the USDA updated the package, significant reduction in childhood obesity among WIC-enrolled toddlers was reported.
When special interests meddle in these critical federal programs, they cannot meet their full potential to support the health of children. The USDA should be able to finalize these science-based nutrition standards without the interference of Congress and special interests. The health of our future leaders depends on it.